Was Jesus an irreligious, Renegade Refugee and revolutionary?

Claim: Jesus was a renegade, refugee who rejected religion and lived a revolutionary life.

True or False: Partially true

I have seen quite a few videos lately on TikTok, and one commercial during the Super Bowl, where people claim that Jesus was a renegade and refugee. Some claim that He rejected religion and lived a revolutionary life. I wanted to pay some special attention to these claims because they are very prominent right now. Prominent claims affect the hearts and minds of impressionable people. Since we live in a society where renegade living, refugee status, the rejection of organized religion, and trying to be an overall revolution are beholden as good characteristics, especially among young people, we must understand Christ’s actual teaching. It is easy to appeal to people on the bases of beliefs they already hold or sentiments they already endear. So, my first challenge is to teachers. We should not be so concerned about our own fame that we resolve to teach what people already believe. We seek truth. Second, it is to everyone seeing such videos or claims on social media. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:10-12), when we hear a claim, we search the Scriptures to either confirm or disprove the claim being made.

I want to observe this claim instead of just labeling the teachers as false or rejecting everything that is said because I sense the faint whisper of bad theology (or just bad Bible reading). Sometimes we are warranted to reject a teaching because of the source, a false teacher. More often, I think, specific claims need to be evaluated. Evaluating a truth claim is more profitable for us, I think, because we are able to think through the issue and grow in the faith. It is more edifying.

Further, I understand the sentiment behind this claim. In making this claim, people have tried to make Jesus more relatable to a modern, younger audience with such values. But, I want to remind you of Jesus’s teaching. In order to follow Him, we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him (Matthew 16:24; Luke 14:27). So, inherent within the Christian faith is a rejection of our own sentiments in order to adopt the teachings of Christ. Christianity is, then, countercultural. In this sense, Jesus is a revolutionary. He is not, to quote Imagine Dragons, wearing a red flag to fit right in like many young people are today. Jesus should not be called a revolutionary in order to fit Him into a renegade culture. He is a revolutionary because He calls all of His followers out of their self-centered cultures into His kingdom. We are to all be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Without such transformation, we are unable to test and approve God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2). Let’s consider these claims together.

  1. “Jesus was a renegade.”

A renegade is “a person who deserts and betrays an organization, country, or set of principles.” I understand the loose use of the term in today’s culture. A “renegade” may be someone who lives life like a rebel without a cause or simply bucks tradition. It’s a cool thing to do, an apparently cool way to live. I am confident that Jesus never set out to buck tradition and certainly did not set out to desert or betray an organization, country, or set of principles. I want to look at one passage of Scripture to show my point:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:1-12).

Jesus taught His followers to obey the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees. Since they seated themselves in the seat of Moses, teaching the Law, Jesus did not desert their teaching. He agreed with them theologically. Yet, He also instructed His followers to practice critical thought and see that the Pharisees and Scribes were, at large, hypocritical–failing to apply their doctrine to their religious practice. So, Jesus was not a renegade so much as a critical thinker and cultural commentator. Pharisees were not evil just for being Pharisees. There were good and bad things, and Jesus Himself addressed the particulars of doctrine and practice–always defending the Scriptures as they were written. He did not buck that tradition but defended it in the face of the hypocrisy of His day. When He did criticize tradition, it was only because the newer tradition conflicted with the Scriptures and the Mosaic Law. Jesus defended what honored the Father and rejected what did not. 

  1. “Jesus was a refugee.”

A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” The only instance I can think of when Jesus had something like refugee status was during his flight to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod against toddlers in Bethlehem—lasting between 4 months and 3 years depending on the scholar you ask (cf. Matthew 2:13-23). At the time, Jesus was between 2 and 5 years of age. Still, Jesus was never a refugee as an adult in His humanity. He was a Jewish citizen living, working, and preaching in Jewish communities. In fact, during His human life prior to His ascension, Jesus intentionally stayed in Jewish communities—seldom venturing outside of His own cultural society.

But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

So, Jesus was a refugee for a short time as a child; but, that was never a central focus of His ministry, and I question as to whether or not such a part of Jesus’s human life should be used to try to make Him more relevant. Our status on this earth does not determine our status before God. We are citizens in His kingdom, so it matters not what we are on this earth. We follow Christ. We are Christians, no longer labeled by the categories of this world. Jesus frees us.

  1. “Jesus rejected religion,” or “Jesus was not religious.”

Religion is “a particular system of faith and worship.” Jesus attended synagogue regularly (Luke 4:16). Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:13-17). Jesus instructed those He taught to participate in Jewish ritual cleansing (Matthew 8:4; John 9:7). Jesus kept the Jewish festivals (Luke 22:7-15; John 7:1ff; 10:22-23) Jesus kept the Jewish Sabbath (Mark 1:21; 6:2). He instructed His followers to pay their taxes and give their offerings (Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 21:1-4). Further, Jesus taught:

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:18-20).

In His humanity and prior to His ascension, Jesus was religious. He instructed His followers to also be religious. Both Jews and Gentiles are provided with a system of faith and worship in Christ.

I think it is important to say that I sympathize with the claim being made. Jesus did reject bad religion, hypocrisy, selfishness, and oppressive religious leadership. Let’s say that, because we do not want to misrepresent Jesus or His teachings.

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).

If our religion causes us to be puffed up, hypocritical, selfish, entitled, or otherwise it is bad religion. If our religion causes us to deny self and put others first in a sincere way, it is pure and undefiled. Unfortunately, when many people claim to not be religious, it is because they feel entitled to do what they want how they want. This kind of irreligion, according to Scripture, is defiled. So, it is dangerous for us to see Jesus in that sort of paradigm because that sort of Jesus would be defiled according to His own word. Jesus was religious. His religion, though, was pure and undefiled.

  1. “Jesus was a revolutionary.”

A revolutionary is someone who “involv[es] or caus[es] a complete or dramatic change.” We live in a society that idolizes revolutionaries. If you want to get much attention or gain a following, all you have to do is start a fight, justified or not, and be really loud. We see this mentality in some of our more prominent political figures and in many of the more prominent religious spokespersons of our day. Early in my ministry, I think I maintained a revolutionary mindset, which made it easy to get more readers and listeners because I was always trying to say something controversial and sensational. At the time, I probably would not have seen it that way. In my mind, I was actively defending the truth! People today are so quick to jump into controversy, even if they have not taken the time to understand the issues they weigh in about. We are trained from a young age to be so engaged according to the ways of the world. This is especially true with the advent of social media and the conversations that have become so popular about Jesus. Again, we wear red to fit it.

Consider the life and ministry of Jesus as we read it from the eyewitness accounts. He was a Jew. He did Jewish things as prescribed in the Jewish Law. He instructed His Jewish disciples to do Jewish things as prescribed in the Law. He critiqued teachers who taught or did something that contradicted the Law (that ancient tradition given by the Father). If Jesus was a revolutionary, it was against the culture of sensationalism that the religious leaders at the time had built. Jesus was humble. He lived a mostly quiet life (publicly speaking for only 3 of his 33-39 years on the earth. Jesus was not trying to change an ancient paradigm but, instead, fulfill it.

So, Jesus was not a revolutionary in the sense of causing a complete or dramatic change in the Law. He was a revolutionary in the sense of causing a complete or dramatic change in people’s hearts toward God and one another.

Final words

When it comes to being renegades, then, may we not adopt the ways of the world. May we think critically about what we witness and not oppose a status quo just because it is in place. When we approach the world, we ask sincerely what honors Christ. We adopt what we should and reject what we cannot accept according to God’s Word. Be Berean. When it comes to religion, we practice pure and undefiled religion before our God–loving God and loving People. When we speak, we speak for the purpose of edification rather than confrontation. We speak for the purpose of building others up rather than building up our own ministries. It should never be our aim to sensationalize Christ by using controversy to gather people around us. We teach repentance, not sensationalism. When it comes to revolution, we seek none, but instead resolve to live quiet and humble lives working with our hands (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:11). There is a proper time to speak, but our objective is never to lead a revolution. Since God created the world, He is ancient. The only true words about Him will be ancient words. Since God cannot change, the only valid religion is an old one. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom of revolutionaries but, instead, a kingdom of those who return to the ancient source of true faith–the ones who believe in the Ancient of Days.

Ad Fontes.

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